MR ADESINA, whose trousers were always dirty at the pockets and the buttocks, but still so ironed that the buttocks shone, was the inter-science and biology teacher who taught us that blood contains red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. The man knew too much and too little. He could draw the heart from his head, but did not know that there are many other things inside the blood. Like the royalty in the blood of kabiyesi’s light-skinned sons, wealth in Alhaji Kosemani’s daughters, and madness in the lineage of Asake, my mother.
This is how my father told Asake’s story: starting from my great-grandmother who spent her life slapping little children who passed by her house at Oke Apo; to grandmother who went to Ghana, stayed too long, came back to Oke Apo, and started to call old women aunty, even those who knew when they cut her umbilical cord; to Asake, who he married as wife only because he did not listen to his father and pay to look into her family history, because he thought he was marrying for love. And, finally, Asake’s daughters: my sister and I—or maybe just one of us.
Father held mother responsible for his misfortune, but everyone knew the real source of his problem was not the madness in her blood but the cheap beer he always poured into his. Every night, his feet found their way to the beer parlour owned by Mama Rainbow, a woman who made goat meat pepper soup to sell at her makeshift shop, an arrangement of mismatched tables and chairs at the corner of the street where men came to smoke and drink and talk in near darkness. He often claimed to have loved her when they first started, that it was her madness that made him a drunkard. But, we really don’t have to worry about him. One Sunday morning in the middle of December, when the rest of us were in church praising God that we survived the ember months, father died riding his motorcycle out of the village when a 9-11 truck carrying wood to the sawmill crushed his head. He is useless to our story.
Mr Adesina the inter-science teacher was good for some things, like when he taught us that white blood cells are like the soldiers in your body, so when sickness comes, they will fight the disease and give you immunity. Immunity. Ì mú ni tì: Bondage. Suddenly, father’s words made sense. Madness in the blood is ìmúnítì that prevents peace of mind. I swear that is why my eyes were always red on school mornings and there was always saliva on my exercise book before break time. There was a widow in the house who prayed at midnight and could only pray properly if she was jangling her tambourine and her two daughters—my sister and I—were clapping along.
Maybe if she did not have mad blood, and sang in the morning, early in the morning like normal people, and I slept well at night and did not clap till my hands became red, then when Boye with the k-leg and eyebrows stretched across his forehead said, Your mama don kolo, I would have reasoned properly and seen that he was not lying. But no. I moved close to him, asked him to repeat what he said, and as he was about to say it swung my arm and hit his mouth. Two teeth flew out with plenty blood, and headmaster asked me to come to school the next day with my mother.
She followed me to school and we went to the headmaster’s office where he told her I injured Boye. She asked what Boye did that made me injure him, but I did not say anything. I did not know how to tell her that Boye said she is a mad woman. I kept quiet and started to cry, so she turned to the principal and said, I know my pikin. She no dey fight like that. I know how small small boys dem dey behave. And look as she tiny sef. Look how the boy big. Maybe him mama no give am milk na him make him teeth soft.
Headmaster opened his mouth as mother spoke like he wanted housefly to enter and sit on his tongue. They suspended me for one week and I was happy to go home. But when we got to the house, she tied me to the bed and flogged my buttocks till it was like someone tied a big hot metal to my bumbum. I could not even sit on the toilet. You cannot beat boys like that, she shouted. I can understand why nobody touches Kabiyesi’s sons because they have royal blood, but what is in Boye’s blood that I cannot remove two of his teeth?
Blood is a stupid thing. Blood is thicker than water is what she used to say when father’s junior brother, Uncle Tade came to the house after the burial and expected us to make him eba, and then kneel down to serve the food to him. I was not the one who cooked for him, so it was not my business. Mother allowed it because he was the one who told the other members of the family to leave her alone when they wanted to throw her out of the house after father died. All of them had come late in the evening: the first two daughters who had husbands of their own but still had the time to be running after their brother’s widow; Uncle Tade, the fourth born; and the last born who could not even find her own husband. She was the one doing mouth like razor, talking about how they need to reclaim their brother’s property before it falls into the hands of strangers.
Somehow, that night when they had the meeting to decide what to do with the property, Uncle Tade was the only one who had sense. She’s one of us, he said. We can’t just throw her out, he said. Let us let the woman raise the children properly under our roof, then when they grow up and are ready to be married off, their husbands will pay the bride price to us.
Just like that, he became august visitor in the house, going and coming as he pleased, eating anything at any time. But, again you see, I was not the one cooking for him so, not my business. One day he came to the house and decided he was not belleful after clearing one bowl of eba, he entered our room and started to touch my body in the parts that Mr Adesina taught us in health talk as red-zone. He untied the ropes of his trousers and said: come and greet daddy. Mr Adesina said when this happens we were to shout for help and run out of the place, but mother was not at home. So, I forgot that blood is thicker than water and cut Uncle Tade’s hand with razor. Blood everywhere. No lie, that thing is thick.
Sebi I told you Mr Adesina was good for some things. Maybe I tell you his story. Fine boy Adesina came to village to teach and saw fine girl. Fine girl got pregnant, so fine boy wanted to run back to city life. But fine girl was daughter of proper priest, not the one that walks around with big robe and bouncing belly, but the one that can tell you your mother is mad and you cannot argue. So, no running. Fine boy became village teacher, but fine girl died while giving birth to baby, because too much blood. Midwife said baby’s head was too big for fine girl’s tiny body. And we believed her because we all know how big Mr Adesina’s head is. Now, Mr Adesina walks around with dirty trousers pressed with charcoal iron. Mad blood everywhere.
After I forgot that blood is thicker than water and cut Uncle Tade with razor, they took me to where my kind is cured. At the entrance of the place, a holy hill, mother saw the way one of the girls was tied to a tree. She wanted to turn back, but the gap-toothed man at the gate with hair like tree roots told her: Don’t worry, it is for their own good. She believed them, left me in their hands and said she would return in six months. It is impossible to talk about the things that happened to me in that place, but the tale of others can be told.
There was a bald-headed boy who was always silent, but had to be tied down with chains. He was there because he smoked too much igbo, and every month they offered him one roll, just to see if he still wanted it. He would smoke it quickly and begin to cry, shaking and almost tearing out his arms to be free from the chains so he could grab more of what they gave him. Then he would go silent but continue to shake. He smelled of urine all the time, because he wee-weed on his body. The smell and his suffering was too much, so nobody went near him except his father, who visited all the time.
The father came one day with a woman who saw the boy from afar and started to shout: You did not tell me this is where you brought him. You did not tell me. What have they done to my son? What have they done to him? She was looking at the rest of us and asking us questions like she could not see we were in bondage too. Ìmúnitì: the madness in the blood that tied all of us together. The man left her, and started walking back to the gate without looking at the boy they came to see. She ran after the boy’s father, turned to run towards the boy, and ran after his father again, screaming as she gathered her iro and buba around her body. They never returned for the boy.
There was a girl tied to a tree and flogged like a cow. Every day, after beating her, they would ask her to confess. And every day, she had a new story to tell: of someone she stabbed in her dream, and another whose foetus she ate when she was hungry at night because they had not fed her anything but water for six days. She was always laughing when she talked, so no one believed her. But the people with hair like tree root believed. One time they cut her in the leg with the chain, and applied gelu to it. She screamed and blood mixed with gelu flowed. The wound started to heal the next day, so they returned to flog her again and again. Finally, she died. For like two days they did not beat anybody again. They give us ewa agoyin and bread and water and washed everybody at the river at the bottom of their holy hill.
Her family came, and they agreed with the men with hair like roots that it was the devil that finally stole their daughter. They actually came with two more daughters in their jeep, so maybe a girl is replaceable after all. After that, after seeing someone like me treated like a mere dog crushed by car on express, I knew death could be my portion too. For what is in my blood that cannot mix with gelu? What is in my blood that can stop them from cutting me and flogging me till I die?
My sister is the only one who can speak of the things that happened in the house in the six months that I was on the holy hill. She saw it all, but chooses never to say anything. She is also the one who came to pick me up at the hill, because mother had plenty things to worry about. In the six months I was gone, Uncle Tade’s scrotum grew thrice its size before bursting open. Then he died. Unfortunately, mother fought with him three weeks before, because after another round of eba, he had called my sister too into the room. Now, sister is a gentle person, so they used to say our mad blood skipped her. But when she too cried and ran out of the house with her blouse torn in the middle, mother decided enough is enough. She decided that blood was not that thick after all, and went after uncle Tade with a pestle to pound his head. After that, yam pepper scatter scatter.
In the days after Uncle Tade died of a burst scrotum, mother became very sober. She knew this was the kind of thing that turned women into witches. It is one thing for your husband to die and another for your brother-in-law to die after fighting with you. She started to cry every night, because even the people in her church started to whisper around her. They started to exclude her from the prayer warriors meeting, because how do you have a prayer warrior who flies at night and sucks blood for dinner?
Women in the village also did what they know best: gossip, make up stories. Suddenly, the story of the woman who wakes up in the middle of the night to pray and sing with her two daughters became something different. Her singing became evil and the jangling tambourine became a tool for welcoming spirits. Mother became the cause of the neighbour’s five miscarriages, because they all happened in the middle of the night, and who else is awake at night if not her and her daughters? Is there a way to prove this? No. So, neighbour’s friend told another tale. She said mother fought with the her on a certain market day, and no one came to her stall from sunrise to sunset. What that one will not tell you is that she is dirtier than the pit latrine, like the lazy woman who gives birth to her child at the stinking oil-press. Her laziness is in the blood.
Long story short, mother became the villain of this story, because we all know the saying to be true: the witch cried yesterday, the child died today, who doesn’t know it’s the witch who killed the child for dinner.
So, how does this story end? Perhaps on the road to Lagos where we sit in the Àròpintènìyàn bus, and mother tells the tale, with tears in her eyes, of our family and the history of madness, and how that mad blood is better kept in Lagos, far from the ancestors that cursed the women in our lineage.
The story of the curse goes like this: there was an òrékeléwà who lived in the village and was loved by everyone. There was no shortage of men who wanted her as bride and her father boasted of her beauty to his peers at the village centre. But she was not interested in loving men. The village chief’s son was the best of her suitors, and with the help of his father, he did the things men were supposed to do to get a girl interested. He donated yams to the house of the girl’s father, worked on their farm with his friends at the height of the farming season, and didn’t join his peers to run after other village girls. But nothing he did impressed this girl. With each rejection, the boy’s sadness grew.
One day, in the middle of the night, at the advice of his friends and the support of the girl’s father, he sneaked into her room with nothing on his body but a wrapper to make quick the business he was supposed to carry out. He entered the room, pinned her sleeping body to the mat and started to lick her face. She pushed him off her body, threw open her window, let the moonlight in, saw him with his thing dangling in the corner of her room, and started to laugh. The boy ran out of her room and headed for the river. They found his body two villages away, a full market day from the night he entered the girl’s room, swollen and ready to burst. His father, the village chief, asked that a curse of madness be placed on the òrékeléwà and her descendants, and it is this madness that has plagued them ever since. It is what made great-grandmother slap children every day, what grandmother tried to escape by fleeing to Ghana, and the reason mother prays every night and shakes her tambourine up and down. She is looking for a way of break the ìmúnitì.
Or maybe we end this story in Ikorodu, Lagos, where the days are now filled with sweeping, cooking, cleaning, washing baby bumbum, struggling to make my new madam happy even though the woman can’t be pleased, and trying never to look at the men in the face in hopes they won’t see enough of me to say what will make me want to slap them.
Or maybe we end this with how we sleep and wake up suddenly at night to surprise ourselves and see if our legs were raised and rested against the wall while we dreamed of women with heads cut and sewn back on, and babies screaming with no one to pacify them. Maybe we talk about how we no longer worry about family curses, but now wake up in the middle of the night and worry that madam will see us with legs on the wall and conclude, like the rest of the world has, about who we are. Maybe we end this story about how we never stop thinking about the other things in the blood apart from madness.
IFEOLUWA NIHIΝLOLA writes essays and short stories from Lagos, Nigeria. His work has been featured in Litro, Saraba, OZY and Klorofyl.